Essay

Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity, Part 1

By Duff McDuffee on June 30th, 2010

This is part one of a multi-part series. Please subscribe to get free updates if you haven’t already.

Personal development saved my life, but not without some side effects. In college, I had been in a troubled relationship for a couple years and when it finally ended, I was overwhelmed with depression. I found that by focusing on the positive, making new friends, and trying new things, I pulled myself out (with a little help from a therapist who had more of a Life Coaching style). I surprised myself with my charisma and extroversion, having always been a geeky intellectual kid. But then I graduated, moved halfway across the country, and had to start over…in the Real World.

As a Philosophy B.A. and an anti-corporate, environmental activist, I wasn’t exactly well-prepared for the job market. I had worked at the Help Desk in college so I found a job doing tech support. While I was good at the work, I found the corporate environment stifling to say the least (I watched “Office Space” over 50 times during this period). One day I got sick with something awful. So weak I could hardly get out of bed for two weeks, I neglected to tell anyone—including my employer—and lost my job in the process. (I’m convinced now that my unconscious decided to quit for me since I couldn’t muster up the courage to do so consciously.)

I fell into a terrible depression. A friend of mine loaned me some of Tony Robbins’ tapes (Personal Power II) and I threw myself in wholeheartedly. On tape one, Robbins describes his own depression and how he overcame it by controlling his focus and physiology, as I had done in college but with far more enthusiasm. I listened to all 30 days  worth of tapes in less than 2 weeks. I got myself pumped up, made a huge list of goals, and did every exercise and homework assignment. I suppose this is the point in the story where I’m supposed to say that my life totally turned around and now I’m a massive success, but it didn’t quite work that way….

Walkin’ On Sunshine

Denver Qwest Building

A few years later, a friend of mine who also was a Robbins devotee decided we should both go to a live seminar with the larger-than-life motivator. That’s how I found myself looking up at the Qwest building logo in downtown Denver, walking across burning hot coals with 2000 people. With drums beating in the background, everyone was chanting “YES! YES! YES!” There was no room for doubt. All fear had been overpowered by force of will. Later this came in handy when Robbins’ pitched his Mastery University, a multiple thousands of dollars series of “advanced” seminars taking place in exotic locations. Again Robbins worked the crowd into a frenzy of “YES!”, overpowering objections by any means necessary.

Nearly every technique employed for the firewalk employed aggressive positivity, actively negating reality through force:

  • 2000 people in a huge conference room with 50-ft screens jumping up and down and clapping to loud music.
  • Screaming “Yes!” when you are feeling “this is dangerous and possibly stupid.”
  • Yelling “cool moss!” when you are feeling burning coals against the soft tissue of your feet.
  • Making your “power move” to get into “a peak state”—a power move being an aggressive gesture (Robbins’ involves beating his chest like an ape) that stimulates a fight-flight nervous system response, overpowering subtler experiences.

The firewalk occurs on day one of the four-day “Unleash the Power Within” seminar (“the power within” is the power of emotion when consciously controlled and intensified). Walking on fire is a metaphor for breaking through fear. Since fear is supposed to be the only thing stopping you from achieving your dreams, once one has broken through fear there should be no obstacles to success. Therefore once one has walked across fire, they should very quickly become totally successful at all things by applying the same principles.

Unfortunately few contexts are relevantly similar to firewalking, as I found out the hard way. Achieving most personal outcomes requires patience, persistence, and flexibility, not an intense emotional display and impulsive action.

But this aggressive positivity does work in some contexts. Unfortunately it works by bowling over inner and outer objections. I have a distinct memory once of having a disagreement with someone after UPW. They had an objection to something I was saying, or some goal I had set for myself. I found myself raising my voice, becoming more passionate and expressive, and they immediately backed down. I realized in that moment that this stuff was dangerous—being aggressively positive in this way was a kind of emotional bullying, getting your way through force of personality. If you get emotional enough, others can no longer think rationally—most either enthusiastically agree or get disgusted with you and walk off. (Luckily I had some meditator friends who had cultivated enough equanimity to continue to rationally question me during this period. Lucky too that I had not been fully indoctrinated so I was willing to listen.)

It took me years to realize that this is also what I had been doing inside. The aggressive positivity of Tony Robbins had appealed to me precisely because it fit well with the self-hate I had already been engaged in. I forced myself to be happy because I didn’t know how to deal with my intense, painful emotions—especially the existential anxiety and despair I had encountered through deep contemplation as a Philosophy major. For me, aggressive positivity was a counter-phobic response to the existential condition…was this also the case for Robbins? How many aggressively positive self-help enthusiasts are engaged in self-improvement as a strategy to avoid confronting the inevitability of death?

Luckily the enthusiasm that I had displayed when running hard in the wrong direction was not all lost, for I was developing general skills that would be helpful once I finally turned around… (to be continued). Click here for part 2.

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50 Responses to “Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity, Part 1”

  1. Stephen Lark says:

    The Dysfunction of Positive Thinking (my title – 10 minute video):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u5um8QWWRvo

    • gertrude says:

      I believe of know, both side are wrong, mistaken. Barbara Ehrenreich saying she knows all about the immunesystem is just as delusional, as false positivists saying how all is an illusion, never know what they mean by that, and how everything is love and every human being has the option to choose happiness.

    • gertrude says:

      Possible that is possible, but then also that is an illusion. One does no longer have to get involved with the negative events, happening in our world, on our planet, not feel compassion for those suffering those states, let alone to anything to change the events. Because everyong creates their own reality, and CAN choose happiness. Yet being a survivor of prenatal and multiple early childhood trauma, i seem to lose myself in that state and feel closer to myself, however deeply sad, thus more in harmony with myself, when true to my own feelings. Be it deep sadness or anger, years ago even rage.
      I can also choose to take everything is an illusion as it does then not matter, when i consciously choose to

    • gertrude says:

      be involved with the negative events in the world, trying to find a way to change them. It being ultimately an illusion, also means i can pass my own deep fears and let compassion and fierceness prevail. Let standing empowered in my own truth as i found it, acknowledging even that may be false, or mistaken, can ultimately maybe kill me, but not kill the essence of me. Choosing to always search for happiness seems boring to me. One no longer seems to know, what happens in the real world, nor has the capacity to discuss that. Nor to search for truth and how to change negatively intended, maybe evil, events, that will harm other humans. I agree with Barbara though, that somehow we should collectively grow stronger, to rebuilt cohesion, a firm decision to built a better world, healthier planetary environment and oppose those whose intent is greed and accumulating unneeded wealth, a carpark not needed, a fleet of homes, not needed, or gameplaying on the stockmarket, destroying some, not needed.

    • gertrude says:

      I do not know how many people will still choose compassion and cohesion. Or how many, whether through the illusionary corporate world, or the greedstimulating alternative self help world, are opting for those illusionary billions, not caring whose backs are broken for that.

  2. Neve says:

    Thank you, Duff. Your honesty and spot on perspective is a rare and wonderful thing.
    Don't ever change!

    (ha ha)

  3. Tim says:

    Love it! Thanks Duff.

  4. Duff,

    Great, insightful, valuable perspective.

    Enjoyed it. Thanks for sharing. I think this can be very helpful to people.

    Rock on,
    Shawn

  5. John Soares says:

    Duff, thanks for sharing your experiences with Tony Robbins and his material. I did read Awaken the Giant Within and go through the Personal Power Two set, but I haven't attended any of Tony's live events.

    I did learn some useful things from his work, but I'm concerned about the value, efficacy, and safety of some of his techniques.
    My recent post How Being Late Hurts You — And What to Do About It

    • I do think there are many useful things Robbins teaches. But I don't recommend powering through inner or outer objections, nor cultivating aggressive positivity or mania. The people who get the most from Robbins without the side-effects manage to leave these things out. I was not so wise.

  6. Haider says:

    Hi Duff,

    What I find dangerous about a lot of self-help is the rationalization that accompanies our decisions to acquire more self-help material.

    If we're able to achieve tangible results with the material, then that's great. Otherwise, we should take an honest look at our decision-making, and not allow anyone to coerce us into buying things we don't really need, and to admit when we've made the wrong purchase.

    I look forward to the rest of this series!
    My recent post Why Are Kids So Damn Annoying

    • Most gurus encourage this behavior through their aggressive sales pitches and emotional appeals. If we had even a slight emphasis on rational thinking, sales would drop but popping the bubble would be a good thing in the long term IMHO.

  7. Frank Schoenburg says:

    Thanks for this post. I enjoyed reading it. Overpowering difficult emotions with aggressive positive thinking doesn't work very well. It's similar to taking drugs and I wouldn't be surprised if the brain chemistry was the same.

  8. cac says:

    James Ray's style is/was similar to Tony Robbins'. I don't know if it's sheer luck that Tony never had something happen like happened in Sedona at the James Ray seminar. It's amazing how easy it is to get caught up in things like that. Everything EVERYTHING feels like a cult to me: from organized religion, to new age groups/teachers, to gurus, to … I really fell, and fel hard for the Secret and all it's hype/hoopla. Boy is my face red now. In hindsight I can so clearly see the flaws and the sheer greediness that runs through the movie and those behind it. I so much want to believe in someone/something outside of myself to help me find my way. Aside from help via books, legitimate teachers, friends and cats, I think I'm pretty much on my own. And… now… after a long of painful trial and error… it's almost ok with me.

    • James Ray's style is similar to Tony Robbins because Ray copied Robbins—sometimes word for word! There is a YouTube video still on Ray's channel where he tells a "personal" story about meeting the owner of a restaurant that I heard Robbins tell. Ray eerily tells the story as if it is his own, copying everything down to the gesture and timing of Robbins. Of course Robbins is no stranger to embellishing a story for his own purposes!

      Everything *isn't* a cult, but it makes sense that you would feel like everything is right now. I sometimes compare coercive groups and gurus to abusive or painful relationships. For a time after a relationship ends, we are afraid to love and for good reasons. It takes time to grieve, to sort out complex and painful emotions, and to figure out what constitutes healthier boundaries. It is foolish to get right back into a relationship, but it is also foolish to never again risk loving someone (in my opinion). Same with groups and gurus. Some teachers are wise and helpful. And falling in love with the wrong teacher can be a part of directing us to the right one.

      And cats can sometimes be the best teachers! :)

    • This recent video on "How to experience enlightenment" from a man I know puts it far better than I could: http://openenlightenment.org/?p=457

  9. Gina says:

    Aloha Duff!
    Mahalo for this post as it is helping me normalize a situation I have with a 28 year old family member who is struggling with this world of ours.This person sees through much of what others offer as help (much being aggressive positivity) and is desiring change on bigger levels- he is not just looking to just feel happier. I am reminded that when things cause us angst or despair it is because something is in need of being looked at and possibly changed…not that we aren't positive enough!
    I look forward to more of the series.
    Aloha, Gina
    My recent post DSM five- Binge Eating now a psychiatric diagnosis

  10. elaine says:

    Thanks for sharing, Duff. I look forward to reading more of your story.

  11. Evan says:

    Looking forward to the next instalment. Would like to hear if you did the fire walk.

    I do think so much of the be disciplined and motivated line does come down to being unkind to ourselves.
    My recent post Good Grieving

  12. Interesting story. I suppose less people would sign up for a course entitled "How to Bully Yourself and Others," or "Discretion is the Sissy Part of Valor".
    My recent post Qigong 102- Secrets of Meditation and Emotional Balance

  13. If you'll allow me a chuckle, I'd recommend this ice cream advert that used to run when I lived in New Zealand a few years ago: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DF-EXZs4QOg

  14. Michael says:

    You make some excellent points here. A very thought-provoking post. Keep it up. Michael
    My recent post If you register your site for free at

  15. [...] found it in a comment thread on the post “Tony Robbins and the Cult of Aggressive Positivity” from Beyond Growth…which in my view needs to be read [...]

  16. ah man, this article gave me some flash backs. Summer 2007 and I'm all fired up after having just shattered a board with a karate chop at a Tony Robbins event in San Diego. My chest is out and I've got the swagger of a rooster… until I look to my right and watch an 80 year old woman scream "hiiiiiiiiiiYA!" and break her board. Ego check.

    great topic and series. Looking forward to parts 2 and 3!

    ~Mike
    My recent post Raw Food- The Last Word In Nutrition

  17. ericblue76 says:

    Duff, great post! I resonate with this on many levels. I also discovered Tony and Personal Power in my early college days and felt that it ultimately gave me the (initial) breakthrough I was looking for. In a strange way I still have an affinity with Tony because of this, but also recognize the limitations and pitfalls of programs like this.

    I actually wrote a post a few years ago reflecting on my experience with Personal Power (http://eric-blue.com/2006/09/02/the-ebb-and-flow-of-goals-and-personal-growth/). Since that time I've reached conclusions similar to yours. Because of Tony's shear charisma and the extreme emotional charge (leverage) you can get from the tapes/seminars, you definitely get enough energy to build momentum and make some breakthrough changes.

    If you're philosophically inclined (like you are) the simple process of asking questions, doing the exercises, and writing in the success journal helps build some critical reflective and introspective skills. For me, this was one of the most valuable parts of the program. I think it helps offset (or maybe even enhance) the emotional rampage/frenzy you get from some portions of the program and balances with a bit of clarity.

    So, do I think Robbin's programs are effective for some people and some situations? Absolutely… it completely depends on the individual, where they're at in their own development and the results they want to achieve. You can learn some techniques and strategies that allow you to make change. But, you can't fool the soul :) Extreme emotional energy and some short-term clarity on tangible goals can produce some results. But, I don't think programs like Personal Power lends themselves to helping people listen to their inner voice, and provide strategies for making changes that require significant amount of time or cultivating the patience required for long-term growth. Rapid change is possible, but is rapid the right approach, and are you really changing the things that should be changed?
    My recent post Weekly Lifestream for July 18th

  18. [...] of Beyond Growth already know some of my opinions about Robbins and his approach to personal development, something I call “aggressive positivity.” Tom [...]

  19. [...] principle also explains why for instance walking across burning hot coals barefoot is not good preparation for “facing your fears,” but really just for walking across hot [...]

  20. [...] power of aggressive positivity Personal development can save lives. This is an example of [...]

  21. Sheri Lynn says:

    Well done and provocative. I appreciate the reference to avoiding the reality of death – basically Robbin's represents another distraction that emotionally powers past the fear – and eventually that is going to break down. It's not sustainable.
    I watched a recent vid of his about the current economical status and how that is going to change in the coming months. He was talking about how folks with investments and tied up money would protect that; even grow it. What a narrow audience – most folks I know are worried about protecting their jobs – how they will keep their house – medical insurance for their kids and the paperwork for food stamps – not protecting excess.
    Made me wonder.

  22. [...] industry and community. The questions the blog hosts raise are both timely and necessary. In this post, Duff McDuffie (one of the blog hosts of Beyond Growth) discusses his experience of attending a [...]

  23. [...] goals through visualization while exercising. Again this is actually quite brilliant! Rather than force a “peak experience” of mania through aggressive positivity as Tony Robbins encoura…, one reaches Flow through diligent practice of complex movement sequences, and in the process [...]

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